It’s been a bad week for Pope Benedict. From Italy to Belgium to Washington DC, courts everywhere seem to be taking a hard look at some of the activities of the Catholic church, and they’re not liking what they’re seeing.

A week ago Sunday, news broke that a high-ranking Roman Catholic cardinal was under investigation in Italy for corruption. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples and former head of a major Vatican department (the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, or Propaganda Fide in Latin) was caught up in a larger probe of former Italian government officials involved in various real estate, public works, and construction scams. Word of the investigation broke last February, but Sepe’s involvement only came to light last week:

Judicial sources have told the media that [Italian infrastructure minister Pietro] Lunardi bought a building in central Rome – in Via dei Prefetti, a stone’s throw from parliament – from Sepe’s department in 2004 at a price four times lower than the estimated market value.

In an alleged swap for favours, the following year Lunardi allocated state funds for the restoration of historic church buildings, including the 16th century Congregation headquarters facing the Spanish Steps.

Sepe proclaimed his innocence, implicitly comparing himself in his Sunday sermon with martyrs who "were tortured, humiliated and disrespected" for their faithfulness to the Gospel. He also declared he had the full support of the Vatican, and pledged to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

That kind of news would ruin any CEO’s week, religious or otherwise. Then came Thursday, when things got dramatically worse.

That’s when Belgian police raided the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium as part of an investigation of child abuse at the hands of priests and allegations of a coverup on the part of the Belgian bishops.

The  spokesperson for the Belgian conference of bishops (the "Episcopal Conference") put out this statement, which was released by the Vatican Secretariat of State on Friday:

The bishops of Belgium were gathered at the residence of the Archbishop of Malines-Brussels at about 10.30 this morning for the monthly meeting of the Episcopal Conference. At about 10:30, police and court officials entered and referred that there would be a search of the archdiocese, following complaints of sexual abuse within the territory of the archdiocese. No explanation was given, but all documents and mobile phones were confiscated and it was referred that nobody could leave the building. This situation lasted until approximately 19:30.

Everyone was interrogated, members of the Episcopal Conference and staff. It was not a pleasant experience, but everything was done correctly. The bishops have always affirmed their trust in justice and its work. This search was greeted with the same confidence and therefore, for the moment, the (bishops) shall refrain from making further comments.

Instead, they, along with Professor Peter Adriaensses, chairman of the committee for handling sexual abuse as part of a pastoral outreach, regret the fact that during another search, all files of this committee were seized. This goes against the privacy rights of which the victims who have chosen to turn to this committee should benefit. This action gravely affects the much needed and excellent work of this committee.

Emphasis added. I’m sure they were surprised — that’s kind of the point, with any kind of search like this — but I’m glad it was all done correctly.

On Sunday, the pope himself weighed in, releasing the message he sent to the head of the Belgian episcopal conference:

At this sad time I wish to express my special closeness and solidarity to you, dear brother in the episcopate, and to all the bishops of the Church in Belgium, for the surprising and deplorable manner in which searches were carried out at the cathedral of Mechelen and at the site where the Belgian episcopate was gathered in a plenary assembly which, among other things, also intended to consider questions associated with the abuse of minors by members of the clergy. On a number of occasions I myself have highlighted how these serious matters should be dealt with by both civil law and canon law, while respecting the specific nature and autonomy of each. In this context, I trust that justice may run its course in order to guarantee the fundamental rights of persons and of institutions, at the same time respecting victims, showing unconditional recognition for those who undertake to collaborate, and rejecting everything that obscures the noble goal with which justice is assigned.

While assuring you that I accompany the progress of your Church with my daily prayers, I willingly impart an affectionate apostolic blessing.

Emphasis added here, too. Notice the difference between the two statements? What the Belgian bishops described as unpleasant and yet "done correctly," the pope sees as "deplorable". Belgium has become what John Allen described as "a perfect storm" on the sex abuse crisis, with a painful history leading up to this raid.

When it rains, it pours. A lot.

The last bolt of judicial thunder came from the Supreme Court of the United States, who with two words made life in the Vatican even more miserable. Buried on a list of orders released this morning [pdf] was the line "09-1: Holy See v. Doe, John V.", sitting right under a very painful two word heading: "CERTIORARI DENIED".

Said the Catholic News Service:

The U.S. Supreme Court has left standing a lower court ruling that will allow an Oregon man to try to hold the Vatican financially responsible for his sexual abuse by a priest, if he can persuade the court that the priest was an employee of the Vatican.

By declining to take Holy See v. John Doe, the court June 28 left intact the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said because of the way Oregon law defines employment, the Vatican is not protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act from potential liability for the actions of a priest who Doe, the unidentified plaintiff, said sexually abused him in the 1960s.

The Vatican had hoped to have this case dismissed out of hand using FSIA, but they couldn’t convince even four justices that their case was worth hearing, at least at this point. (Conspiracy theorists take note: there are six Roman Catholics on the Court, and the Vatican still couldn’t muster four votes for cert, even with an amicus brief filed by the DOJ supporting their position.)

Now the Vatican has the unenviable task of going back to the district court to try to make the case that the priest and various bishops involved are *not* Vatican employees.

Good luck with that.

I can easily envision the questioning by the lawyers for Doe of the priest, the bishops, and whatever Vatican officials are deposed in this case:

  • Are priests obligated to work under the terms and conditions laid down by the Vatican?
  • Are they subject to discipline for failure to live up to those conditions?
  • Does the Vatican establish the procedures for carrying out that discipline?
  • Isn’t it true that no priest can leave the priesthood without the permission of the Vatican, which can be obtained only by undergoing a process created and carried out by the Vatican?
  • Bishop, were you named to your post by the Pope?
  • Did the pope (or someone designated by the pope) install you in your office with a special ceremony of episcopal ordination at which he (or his designee) presided?
  • At that ceremony, did the pope or his designee give to you personally various signs, symbols, and insignia of your office?
  • Are you charged with carrying out your office in accordance with policies and procedures laid down by the Pope and the various curial offices of the Vatican?
  • Are you required to report to the Vatican regularly on your activities, including mandatory visits to Rome for in-person consultation?
  • Isn’t it true that you can be removed from your office by the Pope?

Given that the answer to every one of those questions is "yes," and that there are reams of Vatican documents like the code of canon law and papal sermons at the ordinations of bishops that can be introduced as supporting evidence, claiming that bishops are somehow "free agents" or "independent contractors" is going to be a very hard argument to make.

This case isn’t over. The Vatican may yet win the underlying lawsuit, but they’re not going to win it without a lot of discovery, public hearings, and the airing of some very dirty ecclesiastical laundry.

And if all this news wasn’t bad enough, there’s one more thing that is giving Pope Benedict nightmares: there will be plenty more weeks like this to come.